Duncan Powell looks at his 23 tattoos as a depiction of his life.
The DeSoto senior has one depicting him in his No. 31 Eagles jersey on his right shoulder. Go farther down that same arm and you’ll see the NBA logo on the 18-year-old’s arm — a reminder of where he hopes to take his life one day. When he was 15 he got his first one: the words “dream chasers” on his right leg.
But if Powell accomplishes what he wants to do in college, he’ll have to make room for at least one more tattoo. It’ll have something to do with his school of choice — a decision that wasn’t expected. In November, one day before the first college basketball signing period, Powell shocked many when he decided to commit to North Carolina A&T, a historically Black university and a college basketball program that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013. The 6-8 forward had previously spent six months committed to Arkansas — a program that made the Elite Eight this past season — and had 13 scholarship offers, but he said he couldn’t deny his attraction to playing at NC A&T.
When Powell signed, the four-star recruit and top 100 prospects, according to ESPN and Rivals at the time, became the highest-rated recruit in NC A&T history. He also became the second top 100 prospect to commit to an HBCU in the last two recruiting cycles, joining five-star recruit Makur Maker, a 7-foot center who signed with Howard in 2020.
Wednesday, the first day of the second signing period for Division I basketball, marks about half a year since Powell decided to sign with NC A&T. He knows some people may look at it as a step down from his original commitment, but he said he believes in his decision more than ever.
Powell understands the impact of his decision and the high expectations that come with it. Instead of going to other prominent basketball schools, with prominent basketball alumni, he wanted to be a pioneer and carve his own path. At NC A&T, he wants to be a player who leads the program to sustained success on a national level, creating a spotlight for HBCU basketball in the process.
He understands what it means if that doesn’t happen, as well. “If I don’t go there and impact the way I plan on impacting, everything I’ve worked for up to this point is going to be worthless,” Powell said. When Maker announced his decision to attend Howard, it generated a lot of attention. He became the most highly-touted recruit to commit to an HBCU since Earl Jones, who signed with Division II University of District of Columbia in 1980.
Maker, the younger cousin of NBA center Thon Maker, had the chance to play at powerhouses like UCLA and Kentucky, but at Howard, he saw the chance to make a bigger impact. “I have no idea why it’s been over 40 years that not even one five-star basketball player in the United States has decided to play basketball at an HBCU,” Maker wrote in an essay on ESPN’s The Undefeated. “But I do know that in this Black Lives Matter movement that’s empowered and assembled many different people across the country and the world, that it won’t be another 40 years until it happens again.”
In signing with Howard, Maker wrote that he wanted to inspire a movement. Powell, however, didn’t need any inspiration. “Shout out to him. I’m happy for him and what he did, but it kind of upset me,” Powell said, “because I wanted to be the first one to do it.” Going to an HBCU is something Powell has considered for a long time. And if he needs a reminder of that, all he has to do is look at his phone.
On his phone’s lock screen is a picture of his cousin, former NC A&T forward Adrian Powell, making a jump shot against Morgan State in the 2013 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship game. Adrian Powell had 14 points that game, including two key free throws late, to help NC A&T win 57-54. That was the last time NC A&T made the NCAA Tournament.
Duncan went to the conference tournament that year and watched when NC A&T beat Liberty 73-72 in the tournament’s First Four round before losing to Louisville, the eventual National Champions. Back then the seeds of wanting to play for an HBCU were planted, but the recruiting experience gave Duncan Powell other, bigger college options. Before the start of his junior season, Powell decided to commit to Arkansas. He said he felt at home there, but after more than six months he decided to re-open his recruitment in April 2020.
Before he committed again, Powell took his time and evaluated his options. While he was doing that, he took a trip back to North Carolina to visit family. There, he said he saw his cousin Adrian’s NC A&T jersey and the memories came back to him.
It was then, Powell said, that he decided that he wanted to go to an HBCU. “One day he told me that he wanted to make history,” said Jonathan Walker, the director of Crab 5 Basketball Organization and a coach who has worked with Powell for nearly a year. “He wanted to go somewhere he made a difference.” At NC A&T, he has that chance.
“He has that grit,” Walker said, “and he has that competitive nature.” It helps explain why he wanted the challenge of going to an HBCU in the first place. At NC A&T, he believes he has an opportunity that wasn’t available at Arkansas or any of the other bigger school schools that offered him. When Duncan Powell signed with NC A&T, Adrian Powell started getting messages from fellow NC A&T alumni and friends. They saw the four stars next to Duncan’s name. They told Adrian this was huge news.
“I want him to surpass the hype,” Adrian said. Because hype can only go so far. Last season, Maker played only two games at Howard before he was injured. The school then canceled the rest of the season because of COVID-19. As of Tuesday, Maker hadn’t decided whether he was going to enter the NBA draft or return to Howard.
“I have to get there, win the conference tournament, and go to the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight, the Final Four,” Powell said. “I’ve got to do all that or everything I’ve done in life is pointless.” But if he accomplishes his goals, he may find a spot for a North Carolina A&T Aggies tattoo somewhere.